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Come from Away! New musical at La Jolla Playhouse celebrates an international sleep-over spurred by 9/11

Irene Sankoff  and David Hein wrote the musical ‘Come from Away,’ which will have its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, May 29-July 5.
Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the musical ‘Come from Away,’ which will have its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, May 29-July 5.
( / Alixandra Gould)

In the spirit of theatrical productions based on true-life events, La Jolla Playhouse is staging “Come from Away,” a rock-infused musical, directed by its artistic director Christopher Ashley.

Recognizing good material when they see it, the Canadian husband-and-wife writing team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein (book, music, lyrics) tell the tale of what happened in the isolated town of Gander, Newfoundland in 2001.

In describing the genesis of the play, Hein said, “The 10-year anniversary of 9/11 was coming up, and (through research) we discovered that during the crisis, numerous passengers and pilots from 38 planes were forced to land in Newfoundland. They gathered with the people who lived in Gander, made friends and stayed for a while. The experience changed lives, and in 2011 people returned to Newfoundland to commemorate what had happened and to reconnect with the people they had met!”

Funded by a grant, Hein and Sankoff traveled to Gander for a month in 2011 to meet hundreds of people willing to share their experiences.

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“The town was full with press who only wanted five-second soundbites,” Hein said. “We wanted to hear their entire stories. We came back with a lot of great tales and new friends from all over the world.”

The couple then held up in a cabin to study their research and hundreds of hours of interviews to begin the book, lyrics and music for “Come from Away.”

“Irene and I write everything together,” Hein said. “We started working together when Irene was an actress and I was a singer-songwriter. I grew up with a love of music and listening to East Coast Celtic music. We have a variety of instruments — a Bodhran, accordions, fiddles, guitars — in our house, but at heart we are guitar-based musicians. Being married and doing everything together, we can work 24/7, but initially, we were working so much that we barely saw each other. To spend time together, we developed our first show, ‘My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding.’ It took off, and now writing music and lyrics is our day job.”

The couple’s goal for “Come from Away” is to introduce audiences to the world of Newfoundlanders.

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“The musical is based on inviting neighbors, family and friends into one’s house and gathering at the kitchen where everyone pulls out an instrument,” Hein said. “People dance and sing, and it’s fun and accessible. The kind of music we’ve written has been out there for generations in England and Ireland, yet somehow when you put it in a musical theater context, it’s fresh, new and interesting.”

Sankoff added that because the music is fun and inviting, “we knew this story could be a musical.”

Hein pointed out that there are hundreds of characters in the show “like many we met in Newfoundland. Our 12-person cast turns on a dime to go from local to around the world — England, Texas, California or Africa.”

The element of wanting to unite different nationalities in the play mirrors efforts occurring in the world. “We were truly inspired by all the stories we heard,” Hein said. “We laughed with them, we cried with them, we hope to pass on the same feelings we experienced to bring Newfoundland, on the northeast coast of North America, to San Diego.”

Sankoff added that she hopes audience members sing some of the songs and are moved by the story because “a lot of people have not heard about this event.”